In Other Words

Muckraking in Manila

When midterm elections were held in the Philippines in May, the media scrutinized the process more closely than usual. In the aftermath of the previous national elections in 2004, the president herself, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had been accused of rigging the results. This time around, her ruling party faced similar allegations of vote tampering, particularly ...

When midterm elections were held in the Philippines in May, the media scrutinized the process more closely than usual. In the aftermath of the previous national elections in 2004, the president herself, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had been accused of rigging the results. This time around, her ruling party faced similar allegations of vote tampering, particularly in Maguindanao, an impoverished southern province governed by a close ally of the president. Arroyo’s party declared that its candidates had won a sweeping victory within the province of 12 open senate seats because most of the opposition candidates had, incredibly, received zero votes. At such a ludicrous claim, the opposition coalition cried foul and demanded that the election results be investigated.

The Philippine press pounced on the story. Among the media outlets reporting from Maguindanao was the Web magazine Newsbreak. Its coverage of the scandal chronicled how the provincial election supervisor mysteriously lost the official paperwork with the municipal tallies. The national elections commission appointed a special task force that eventually unearthed duplicate voting rolls. But it forbade opposition party lawyers from examining the copies, and declared the initial election results to be valid. Still, no one doubted that there had been some kind of double-dealing. Newsbreak visited a neighboring province, where sources described how regional politicians from all parties regularly bribed voters and stuffed ballot boxes.

Keeping the government in check is a point of pride for the feisty Philippine press, which has played an important role in the country’s transition to democracy. When then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he shut down all of the nation’s television stations and newspapers. He eventually allowed a few to reopen under strict control of his regime. Even then, he didn’t hesitate to throw newsmen — and they were almost always men — into jail if their reporting angered him. But a generation of courageous female journalists took their imprisoned colleagues’ place, and began to expose Marcos’s dictatorial ways. Their collective editorial voices became stronger as the dictator grew weaker, and when Marcos was finally deposed in the "People Power" revolt of 1986, a robust journalistic community stood ready to take advantage of its newfound liberties.

Not surprisingly, political corruption didn’t disappear. In fact, it was a corruption scandal that had forced Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada, to step down from office. And it was, in part, to expose such dangers to the country’s young democracy that Newsbreak was born. Launched as an English-language newsweekly in 2001, just as Arroyo was sworn into office, the first issue of the magazine celebrated the end of Estrada’s unscrupulous presidency and heralded the triumph of the second so-called People Power revolt. But that optimism quickly unraveled. Corruption, it seemed, was embedded in the seat of Philippine power, no matter who was president. For the next several years, Newsbreak gained a reputation for its dogged investigative reporting and lively attacks on the malfeasance of the Philippines’ holy trinity: politics, the military, and the Catholic Church.

Arroyo’s moral fiber appeared to be as unreliable as her predecessors’. She twice faced impeachment proceedings because of her role in the 2004 election scandal. Among other questionable decisions, she declared a state of emergency in early 2006 when a supposed plan for a military coup was uncovered. Arroyo invoked her emergency powers by authorizing warrantless arrests and, for the first time since the Marcos regime, shutting down the office of a newspaper critical of her leadership. But other publications such as Newsbreak continued to report on her tenuous hold on power. "It is important for us to show that Mrs. Arroyo is very vulnerable to influences of politicians because she plays patronage politics," says Marites Vitug, Newsbreak‘s founding editor. "We’re always interested in the power structure, in politicians who are perceived to influence policy, but not for public interest."

A dislike for the press seems to run in Arroyo’s family. In November 2003, Newsbreak published a report alleging that the president and her husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, owned property in San Francisco that they had not declared in their official statement of assets. A few months later, the first gentleman filed a libel suit against Newsbreak. It was one out of 11 libel cases that he has filed against a whopping 46 journalists in the past six years. He only dropped the cases earlier this year, out of self-proclaimed magnanimity, after he underwent heart surgery.

The first gentleman isn’t the only one of Arroyo’s allies to strike back at Newsbreak‘s editors. In a series of articles published two years ago, the magazine reported that Luis "Chavit" Singson, a long-time governor of a northern coastal province, was growing closer to Arroyo and amassing even greater wealth under her rule, even while the people in his province remained poor. Newsbreak slapped the headline "The Second Gentleman" on its cover. Singson promptly slapped a libel suit on Newsbreak. Because libel is a criminal offense under Philippine law, authorities arrested online editor Gemma Bagayaua in connection with the suit and threw her in jail this past March. Fortunately, she was released on bail the day after her arrest. Four other Newsbreak staffers, including Vitug, were also charged.

Singson’s $2 million suit against the magazine is still pending, but Newsbreak has already taken a financial hit because of its aggressive reporting. Its full-time staff has shrunk from 11 editors and writers to just seven people. Vitug says that advertisers, especially companies regulated by the government, no longer want to be associated with the magazine because of the controversy stirred by its corruption stories. The drop in advertising revenue, coupled with poor newsstand sales, forced Newsbreak to fold its print edition in February and retreat to the Web. In the meantime, grants from international organizations such as the United Nations, the Asia Foundation, and the National Democratic Institute have enabled Newsbreak to publish occasional "special reports" for the newsstand, such as the July 16 special issue dissecting May’s midterm elections.

The libel suits and the demise of Newsbreak’s print version show that the Philippines — more than two decades after the end of Marcos’s dictatorship — is still a fragile democracy, where the struggle for independent journalism remains fierce. "There’s a lot of information that needs to see the light of day," says Luis Teodoro, deputy director at Manila’s Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. "The tendency in a country like ours is to keep many things secret. And most of the time, those things are issues of public concern." That Newsbreak‘s reports on corruption have nearly cost it its existence is, ultimately, telling of how far the Philippines has yet to go.

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